Single-celled amoebae, which resemble small blobs of jelly, are usually of interest only to the researchers that discover them. However, a new South American species is garnering significant attention from fans of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R.Tolkien. That’s because its unique shell, or carapace, bears a close similarity to the hat donned by Gandalf, the powerful wizard leader of the Fellowship of the Ring and the army of the West.
Named Arcella gandalfi in honor of Tolkien's wizard, the amorphous organism had previously been observed in many parts of Brazil. However, researchers could never collect enough specimens to test if the freshwater amoebae were a new species. That changed after Jordana de Carvalho e Féres stumbled upon them in large numbers in the water samples she collected in Amapá and Rio de Janeiro. To investigate the unusual-looking organisms, the biologist teamed up with Professor Daniel J.G. Lahr from the University of Sao Paulo.
Using an electron microscope, the team was able to obtain the measurements and images necessary to conclude that A. gandalfi was a new species. Lahr also believes that this strange amoeba is exclusive to South America. The organism, whose color ranges from light yellow to brown, can be found in wetlands, damp soils, and bogs. Though its carapace measures a mere 81-microns wide by 71-microns tall, the amoeba is a giant among single-celled organisms. Most amoebae that belong to its genus, Arcella, measure less than half its size and are typically disk-shaped.
The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Acta-Protozoologica in December 2016, aren't sure why the carapace is hat-shaped. Since the shell has been found inside the stomachs of predator microorganisms, it clearly does not serve as a defense mechanism. The scientists speculate its primary purpose may be to store moisture to protect against fluctuating water levels in the amoeba’s habitat. The carapace could also be shielding the single-celled organism from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. According to Professor Lahr, “A multicellular organism has a number of protective barriers against UV radiation, including a layer of keratin, as well as skin pigments. In the case of single-cell organisms like amoebae, their DNA is basically exposed.”
A.gandalfi is not the only interesting-looking species discovered recently. A few months ago, scientists in South West India stumbled upon a new kind of spider that closely resembles the sorting hat in J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books. Javed Ahmed and Rajashree Khalap, both fans of the series, have named the spider, Eriovixia gryfindori in tribute to the hat’s owner — Hogwarts founder, Godric Gryffindor!
Resources: newatlas.com, dailymail.co.uk, arcella.nl